For nearly 30 years, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade were the Cal Ripkens of bookselling, seemingly never leaving their perch at Politics and Prose. They were so in sync in their stewardship that they often showed up for work wearing the same color.
Eras end. Cohen is gone now, succumbing to cancer last year, and on Tuesday, Meade and Cohen’s husband revealed that they had found new owners for the 27-year-old store. They are former Washington Post journalists Bradley Graham and his wife, Lissa Muscatine.
“The hardest part of all this was losing Carla,” Meade said in an interview. “I told Carla it would be too lonely to run a business by myself.”
Meade and David Cohen settled on the couple’s offer after narrowing a flurry of propositions down to five or six serious offers. One of the final bidders was a group including ex-New Republic editor Franklin Foer, Atlantic magazine writer Jeffrey Goldberg, literary agent Rafe Sagalyn and a real estate company.
Terms of the deal were not released, but a person with knowledge of the negotiations said that the purchase price was about $2 million.
Meade and Cohen said price was not the sole factor in determining the buyer of the store, which has remained profitable despite catastrophic changes in the industry for bricks-and-mortar stores. Rather, they picked Graham and Muscatine because they think the couple is uniquely qualified to extend the store’s reputation as a gathering place for ideas and civic discourse.
Graham began working at The Post in 1978, serving as a business reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and Pentagon correspondent. He is the author of two books, including “By His Own Rules,” a biography of Donald Rumsfeld. He is a graduate of Yale and Stanford Business School and comes from a family that made its money in the ice cream cone and plastics industries.
Muscatine, a Rhodes scholar, worked at the Post for 12 years as a reporter and editor before becoming an aide and confidante to President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Most recently, she was the State Department’s director of speechwriting. Meade liked the idea of a female owner considering the store had always been run by women.
“We understand that Politics and Prose is much more than a bookstore,” Graham told the store’s staff in a gathering held where novelists, presidents and eggheads alike have signed books. “It is an integral part of the Washington community, a community that Lissa and I have served for much of our careers already as journalists, authors and, in Lissa’s case, a senior government staff member. It is a very special culture here, a culture we want to see survive.”
A longtime shopper listening nearby liked what she heard. “They sound like people of the book, which is what the store needs,” said Lenore Weinberg of Northwest Washington, who shops at Politics and Prose often for her grandchildren. “This store is in a class by itself, and I hope it stays that way.”
The deal is expected to close in about 45 days. Graham and Muscatine plan to work full time in the store, taking control, with some guidance from Meade, as the bookstore industry has been battered by e-books and the digitization of information. Borders recently filed for bankruptcy, shutting down hundreds of stores, including several in the Washington region. Barnes & Noble, for sale for months, has struggled to find a buyer.
But many observers think there is still a role for independent bookstores in hand-to-hand bookselling, with smaller overheads, strong customer relationships and the ability to create a tightknit community around words with author events and classes — areas in which Politics and Prose already excels. Using new print-on-demand technology, some independent bookstores are publishing original books or printing not-in-stock items.
Graham, who is not related to Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham, said he approached the idea of buying the store as a reporter, travelling across the country to talk to other successful independent bookstore owners. One stop was at Village Books, in Bellingham, Wash.
“Brad’s eyes were wide open,” said Chuck Robinson, longtime owner of Village Books. “I don’t think he has any great illusions of making a lot money, but if there’s any bookstore in this country that has the potential of continuing to do well, it’s Politics and Prose.”
Graham and Muscatine said they weren’t ready to discuss details. Instead, they want to gather the perspective of the store’s fiercely loyal staff, which Graham called its “greatest asset.” They did say that they plan to put their own money into expanding the store.
And they acknowledge, like other bookstore owners, that the path ahead is somewhat uncertain.
“We are all a little crazy,” Robinson said. “It’s almost as bad as being in the newspaper industry, which Brad of course knows.”